Ink on the page: Faith, fear and Northern Presbyterianism

Poet Moyra Donaldson on the strict religious upbringing that inspired Bone House

As the first wave of the global pandemic started to wash ashore in the UK and Ireland, I found myself afraid; afraid for those I love, my family, my friends; afraid of the grief that this virus would bring, afraid for myself. It felt like another, added level of the fear that I live with, that I accepted as part of my nature.

My daughters laugh at me sometimes – call me Mrs Doom, for if there is a bad outcome to be imagined, I imagine it; worst case scenarios. During this period I was also trying to work on my new collection, Bone House, which began with the overarching theme of mothers and daughters. It was becoming something a lot more personal. So much so that I couldn’t write it, couldn’t grasp what I was trying to say.

As the weeks went by, I became fixated on the word “fear”. Why is it so much a part of my psyche? Why do I feel as if I have been afraid my entire life? How many of my most reckless acts were an attempt to kick back at my underlying sense of dread. A need to deny fear, to prove that it would not rule my life?

I sent off for a book that had come to my attention, Fear: A Cultural History by Joanna Bourke. I wasn’t far into reading it, when I had my lightbulb moment. I had been nodding my way through chapter one, where Bourke begins in the mid- to late 19th century with the fear of being buried alive, a fear that I too had taken on through my early love of horror stories and the gothic.


Then she moves on to speak of the fear that was purposely distilled into minds by Christianity. Focusing on the 1900s, she writes that all Christian faiths accepted that we are right to be sorely afraid and that it was indeed the duty of clergy to make people afraid of the Last Judgement, of the individual’s encounter with God after death. All one’s life leading to this spiritual dredging. Here in Northern Ireland we know that in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches, this attitude still prevails.

Bourke quotes examples of how this terror of the wrath of God was preached in churches. For example, she quotes William Booth, revivalist preacher and founder of the Salvation Army: “Nothing moves people like the terrific. They must have hell-fire flashed before their faces, or they will not move. Last night I preached a sermon on Christ weeping over sinners, and only one came forward (for conversion) … When I preached about the harvest (of souls at the end of time) and the wicked being turned away (from heaven), numbers came. We must have that kind of truth that will move sinners.”

I had been raised in that tradition. This was the kind of preaching that I had been subjected to as a child. I had fear fed to me from my earliest days. It was my inheritance, my DNA.

I didn’t know my grandfather. He died when I was a toddler and after his death my mother moved our small family into his house to look after my grandmother who had had a stroke. My grandmother died when I was 16 and my chief memory of her remains that of her sitting in a chair by the fire, white hair in a tight bun and her well-worn Bible always on the arm of the chair beside her. I knew my own mother loved her mother dearly, saw her as a saint.

I grew to have a sense of my grandfather through the stories my mother told. He was a Calvinist, a strict, hard and ambitious man, who preached in mission halls and at the same time was a farmer and an astute businessman, building streets of Belfast houses and making money.

Listening to my mother talk of how he treated her, I couldn’t understand how she could not be angry with her own mother for not intervening, for not standing up for her. He ruled with a rod of iron and he had God on his side. Gender roles were clear and fixed.

I remember when I was a small child, two men, preachers in bowler hats and thick woollen coats, calling at the door to offer condolences to my grandmother. I recall my mother’s anxiety at their visit, her showing them into the “good” room. I remember how one clasped me to him, his hand around my head as he prayed for me. I remember how I had an earache and his heavy hand made my pain worse, but I was too afraid to say anything or wriggle from his grasp.

My mother sent my brother and me to Sunday School twice every Sunday, as well as taking us to the adult church service. We were sent to the Presbyterian Sunday School in the mornings and in the afternoons to Ebeneezer Gospel Hall, a Brethren mission place. We were taught to be afraid; it was important. If we didn’t grasp the danger we were in, we might not be saved and then we would be destined for hell.

I remember being asked to think about how painful it would be to hold your hand over a candle flame, then to imagine what that would be like over your entire body – for ever. Week after week, for years, thunderous men, inviting children to imagine eternal torture in a fiery lake of burning sulphur. “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever and they have no rest day or night.” (Revelation 14.11)

As a child I struggled with predestination, the concept of God’s elect. How could I be sure I was one of them? I remember lying awake at night, worrying that the silence of the sleeping house was in reality the silence after the Second Coming. My family had been taken and I had been left behind because I didn’t believe enough. Jesus loved the little children, but only if we loved him back. He’d be sad to have to send us to Hell, but rules are rules.

I realise now that my mother had been brought up in this same fear and she was afraid for us. She was small and fierce and loved singing and playing the piano. Like her father she was ambitious, hardworking and successful, but never content, never at peace with herself or with the world. Mercurial in her moods, she was the weather for us. As soon as we entered the room we knew if it was sunny or stormy.

She tried to keep us safe in the only way she knew. We learnt to say our prayers, to stay away from anything that might corrupt us. I was discouraged from going to other children’s houses to play. We were well-brought-up children, pushed to do well in school and to achieve, but I don’t remember any joyfulness or playfulness. No lightness.

I do remember trying very hard to be a “good girl”, to make sure I was “saved”. Then I couldn’t do it anymore. A teenage girl who also went to the Ebeneezer Hall went missing one night and the rumour was that she had been with a boy. The next Sunday, with this girl sitting there, our teacher took out a sheet of white paper, described it as clean and unblemished. He then dropped a blot of ink onto it from his fountain pen, asked us what we could see. The blot, we dutifully replied. He then went on to describe how this girl now had a blot on her life and that was all that people would see, unless she asked Jesus washed to wash it away. Something changed for me in that moment.

My mother was horrified by my teenage rebellions, going out with friends to discos, drinking cider; despairing at my adult lack of faith. How terrifying to think that your child will be cast into outer darkness, that you will spend eternity without them.

I think she worried that her encouraging me in my love of reading and words had set me on the broad road to damnation. Looking back I can see how she also struggled with her own belief, the tensions between her upbringing and her own ambitions and desires.

It explains many of her contradictions and unhappinesses that were a mystery to me at the time and that I eventually found a way to talk about in Bone House: the misery that her upbringing was for her, and that she still imposed on us, her children, for our own good.

I see my grandfather as having come out of the Great Revival, his beliefs forged by the ecstasy that swept the North in 1859. That identity, solidified in his family, was passed down through his children, my mother included, to his grandchildren. I am a product of that.

The fear that has dominated my life, dominated my mother’s too and it is still there in a wider Presbyterian identity. The fear of sinning, the fear that pleasure is the first step on the road to hell, the fear that if we don’t obey the rules we will be punished. God is watching and the Devil is around every corner, waiting to ensnare us.

The Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, as it was referred to in our house, was also something to fear. I saw that mixture of fear and faith in uncles who marched in their sashes on the Twelfth; in cousins who marched their own children to Sunday School and church; in the rigid belief system that allowed no deviation. One of my cousins recently emailed me, for reasons best known to herself, to tell me of the grief I had caused my mother when I was young, by my rebellion against our faith. I undoubtedly did cause grief to my mother and I am sorry for that, but it was a two-way wounding.

Unpicking these thoughts turned the key for me in trying to write Bone House, I had an architecture of understanding on which to hang the poems and I was able to acknowledge my hurts and my attempts to break that transmission of fear through the generations. The birth of my first grandchild, a little girl, brought it all into perspective.

I read a recent article in The Irish Times, To live in Northern Ireland was to live in varying degrees of extremity by Nicholas Allen. In it he spoke of the importance of listening to the untold stories, but one particular phrase stuck in my mind, “the personal, honeycomb histories that lie not far beneath the surface of the North’s official past”. This particular cell of fear is part of the fabric.

Writer Jan Carson touches on these issues in her work. I listened to her and Rosemary Jenkinson discuss the Protestant perspective on the centenary of partition as part of the Irish Times podcast, Inside Politics. Jan spoke of how there is very little written from an evangelical perspective and how that was at least in part due to the fact that there was no respect or support for the arts in the Presbyterian community, where such things are seen as sinful and wrong.

Raising your voice is not encouraged. I remember this too from my childhood. All is vanity. We were safer if we stayed among our own and nothing should be discussed outside the family. Everything stayed inside, was denied if it didn’t fit with the hope of our salvation.

Jan Carson touches on some of these themes in her new collection of short stories, The Last Resort, set in a crumbling caravan park on the north coast; Kathleen, still trapped in the same belief that dictated my grandmother’s relationship to her husband. “He’s the head of the house. It doesn’t matter what I think. I’ve to do what he says.” The Bible says so; Anna, who cannot break free of her dead mother’s beliefs. No one is able to move into the future without fear.

There is a darkness at the heart of those Presbyterian fundamentalist religious beliefs that is rarely spoken about, that is barely recognised. A fear that gets into your bones, a fear that spills into politics, into everyday life and into the future. It is no coincidence that the DUP has strong ties to evangelical churches. My collection, Bone House, is my attempt to confront the origins of my own fear and to move forward.

Bone House is published by Doire Press today and is launched at 7pm by Nessa O'Mahony.